Hollywood could exist in no other place but Los Angeles, the city of dreams, a place malleable enough to accommodate fantasists of all stripes because it doesn't have a particularly strong identity of its own. In David Jacobson's strikingly beautiful Down In The Valley, Edward Norton stars as one of those fantasists, a pistol-slinging, 10-gallon-hat-wearing cowboy who turns contemporary Death Valley into his personal OK Corral, willfully oblivious to the times. And for as long as it can, the movie plays it straight: There's no suggestion of who he really is or how he came to embrace this persona, and Norton's enormous charisma sells him as a charming naïf, cheerfully out of step with an ugly, vulgar world. So, too, Down In The Valley, which recalls George Washington or The Brown Bunny in the way it looks and feels like nothing on the independent scene, and the way it owes more to idiosyncratic '70s films like Badlands, Taxi Driver, and Two-Lane Blacktop than to today's arthouse quirkfests. It's no wonder a film this accomplished took so long to find a distributor.
Lean and handsome, with an easy drawl that could pass for Montgomery Clift's, Norton first appears as a gas-station attendant, smiling his way through the veiled insults of a station wagon full of teenage girls en route to the beach. But one of those girls, a lithe beauty played forcefully by Evan Rachel Wood, takes an instant liking to him and invites him along, perhaps in part because she knows it'll tick off her domineering father (David Morse), who goes toe-to-toe with her every night. Though they seem mismatched, Norton and Wood connect deeply and palpably, in spite of—and in some ways because of—his anachronistic manner, which can be gentlemanly and full of surprising romantic gestures, like stealing a horse for a gentle gallop around an unspoiled landscape. Norton also takes a shine to Wood's young brother (Rory Culkin), a shy kid who feels empowered by a father figure who isn't so obviously disappointed in his weakness.
Of course, reality inevitably comes crashing down on Norton, whose beautiful vision curdles into a frightening obsession, and Wood, who's too fundamentally levelheaded to not see the cracks in his façade. Jacobson (Dahmer) makes their relationship work through exceptional direction, which turns the city's few undeveloped territories into a sun-dappled idyll, the only place where such an unlikely affair could flourish. It's almost a shame that the film has to shift into murkier psychological ground in its second half, when Norton's true nature starts coming into focus, because the film could just as easily be about the modern world encroaching on paradise. Either way, it's mysterious and bold at every turn, and refreshingly removed from the commonplace.